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Rutgers is their own worst enemy this season

The Scarlet Knights failed to complete a comeback for the ages but the root cause for even having the chance to is the real problem.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday is Groundhog’s Day but for Rutgers men’s basketball, much like the movie with the same name, they had their own version of a repeatable nightmare the night before. Trailing by double digits in the first half of Big Ten road games is something the Scarlet Knights have now done in every league contest away from Jersey Mike’s Arena this season. For the sixth straight time on Tuesday night, the Scarlet Knights fell into a huge deficit early on and despite a riveting comeback to send the game into overtime, the end result was a hugely disappointing loss.

“You got to play 40 minutes. It’s a big boy league, and every team is really good especially when you go on the road,” head coach Steve Pikiell said after the game. “You can’t spot a team, you can’t play like that in the first half. We can’t turn the ball over for no reason 10 times.”

It was maddening to watch a team we’ve seen play at a much higher level put themselves in such a hole in which they trailed 43-25 at the break. Credit the Wildcats for hitting shots, as they went into halftime at a clip of 59% shooting from the floor. However, Rutgers mostly did the damage to themselves. The Scarlet Knights had committed 10 turnovers, were -5 on the boards, failed to close out on shooters, and lacked defensive intensity. They were outscored 20-12 with points in the paint and the bench was outscored 9-0. RU only had 2 second chance points and zero fast break points. It was a terrible start in the opening frame in every way.

It’s a repeatable issue that is killing this team’s chances of even approaching what they wanted to accomplish this season. Steve Pikiell and the coaching staff haven’t figured out how to cure the issue and the players seem to be hung up by it mentally.

The poor play extended into the first three minutes of the second half as Northwestern made four of their first five shots to extend the lead to two dozen points, as Rutgers trailed 52-28 with 17:07 to play in the game.

Up to this point, it was an embarrassing performance for a veteran group against a team that was winless at home in Big Ten play. That it came just as they were beginning a crucial month ahead was even more concerning. Even for a team that routinely falls behind due to poor play caused by turnovers, excessive fouling and a lack of urgency, trailing by 24 points was exceptional.

And then just as last rites on the game and by some, the team, were about to be read, this team did something else they have a habit of doing this season. They played a remarkable stretch of basketball that was equal parts brilliant and beautiful.

There was no better player on the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena than Paul Mulcahy, who looked like he experienced some type of metamorphosis before the game. His energy and confidence was a sight to see, as he seemingly ran circles around everybody, his teammates included. While he led RU with 9 points on 3 of 6 shooting in the first half, it was after the break in which he looked supernatural. Mulcahy was a perfect 7 of 7 from the field in the second half and overtime while pushing the pace and attacking the rim relentlessly. Trailing by 2 points in the final seconds of regulation, the junior drove under control and made a timely pass to Cliff Omoruyi under the basket for a game tying dunk.

The sophomore big man was sensational inside as he finished with a career high 22 points on 9 of 14 shooting along with 6 rebounds and a steal.

As for Mulcahy, it was an epic 31 point performance (career high) on 10 of 13 shooting and 9 of 11 from the foul line along with 7 assists, 7 rebounds and 4 steals in 44 minutes. He scored 10 of the final 15 points for Rutgers in regulation after trailing by 11 with just over five minutes remaining. He then scored 6 of the team’s 8 points in overtime. Mulcahy did everything he could to will his team to victory and sadly, it wasn’t enough.

“Spectacular, really. Spectacular,” said Pikiell of Mulcahy. “Just grit, will. He was great. He really was. He kind of kept us in it. He got to the free throw line, he got downhill, he made shots. But I just loved him directing the entire second half and the first half, too, and just kind of willed us back into this basketball game.”

It was also a night in which two starters, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell, both failed to score. Losing by 1 point is painful enough, but doing so when the 12th all-time leading scorer in program history fails to make a shot, it borders on cruel and unusual punishment. Baker struggled mightily and also had a costly turnover with a pass directed at Ron Harper Jr. with 21 seconds remaining in overtime. It was pushed low at Harper Jr.’s ankles and the ball went out of bounds on the second to last possession of the game.

“Geo will bounce back,” Pikiell said. “(The loss) wasn’t about that. It was about our defense. We’ll look at the shots he took. Geo makes a lot of shots, too, but we’ll go over some of that with him.”

McConnell only played 17 minutes, including just 1 after halftime. While he had 3 assists early on, he committed 3 turnovers and had just 1 rebound while failing to make a positive impact on the defensive end, which is his strength.

On the backs of Mulcahy and Omoruyi, Rutgers finished the second half on a 42-18 run over the final 17 minutes of regulation. They went to overtime with all the momentum against a team that has routinely failed to close out games. Another Mulcahy scoop shot gave them a 2 point lead in the extra session before falling behind 77-72 before the point guard ultimately get Rutgers within 1 point again in the final minute of OT.

After Northwestern’s Boo Buie missed the front end of a one and one with 8 seconds to play, Ron Harper Jr. grabbed the rebound and drove down the floor. Rutgers was out of timeouts and their leading scorer took a mid-range jumper in transition that hit the front rim and was rebounded by the Wildcats. The comeback fell short. It was a night full of emotions in a season overflowing with them, but the predominant one all winter showed up last....disappointment.

“We spotted a team 24 points,” said Pikiell. “You’ve got to use so much energy and every play you’ve got to make now and you’ve got to make every open shot. Just a hard way to play.”

As for whether Harper Jr. was right to take the last shot or should have deferred to the hot hand in Mulcahy, I think the final look was one you can be fine living with. Was the last shot the best possible look? No. Was it a bad shot? Absolutely not. Harper Jr. thrives with jumpers in transition. He had as open of a look as you are going to get in that situation. After getting called for a charge with the game on the line in the loss to Minnesota, this time he rightly found open space and took a shot he has made plenty of times. Getting to the rim was a risk with the clock winding down and the potential for an offensive foul. He had a quality shot to take and he rightly took it. If there is any gripe to be made, it’s that he faded away and didn’t follow his shot to attempt to rebound the miss. It wasn’t his best night in making just 4 of 14 shots, but Harper Jr. finished on par to his season averages with 16 points and 7 rebounds.

On the final shot that Harper Jr. took, Pikiell explained, “The ball was in his hands the whole time but we had no timeouts left. I trust Ron. He’s made a lot of good plays for us. He got a good look at it. The turnover before that probably hurts us more than anything, not getting a shot up. When you’re in that kind of situation and you got the ball in your leading scorers hands and he’s got a clean look at the basket, he’s made a lot of those. Obviously, Paul was really, really good. You’d like the ball in his hands but I feel good about Ron, I feel good about Geo, I feel good about Paul. It doesn’t come down to that last shot. It’s the first half. Everyone is going to look at that but we shouldn’t have been in that situation if we got off to the start that we needed to.”

In regard to coaching, Steve Pikiell deserves praise and criticism in the loss. His second half adjustments in switching to a zone defense and a 2-2-1 full court press completely flummoxed Northwestern. It was the catalyst to Rutgers making the comeback and almost pulling out the game. He gave his bench a chance to make a difference by giving them more second half minutes than usual as well.

On the change in defensive approach, Pikiell said, “We weren’t stopping them playing man-to-man. We have enough things we can go to. We took them out of rhythm. We got good length and it helped us tonight. But you have to do those kind of things when you’re down that many points.”

And there is the catch. Rutgers continues to burn themselves with poor starts to games which also includes their recent loss at home to Maryland in which they trailed by 20 points in the first half. For whatever reason, this team is repeatedly not ready to play at the start of games. We saw it in November when they played down to their competition and it ultimately cost them in defeats to DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. Now Rutgers has lost three of four games, all to opponents in the bottom four of the Big Ten standings. Double digit deficits in all four games, winning just once.

It’s Pikiell’s job to figure out why and so far he has been out of answers. It is hard to believe such an experienced starting five has often played themselves out of games the way they have. At this point, continuing to expect the starters to figure it out seems questionable. Changes should be considered moving forward. The blame ultimately falls on Pikiell, which he has said as much throughout the seasaon. But that doesn’t give Rutgers fans any solace or relief as the losses pile up. Everyone is suffering right now within the program and within the fan base.

For a team that Pikiell admittedly had extremely high expectations for entering the season, the results have been a major disappointment so far with just over a month of the schedule remaining. While hope is flickering to stay alive for this team, the next eight games are against Quad 1 opponents, including the next five who are nationally ranked in this week’s polls. Opportunity to turn the season around is still present, but the clock is running out of time for this team.

As of now, this season has been filled with seemingly avoidable failures mixed with several highly memorable performances, both as a team and individually. The win over then No. 1 Purdue, the program’s first ever victory over Michigan and a defensive performance for the ages over Iowa are highlights. They’re also proof of what this team can accomplish when they play to or close to their potential. And when they don’t, this team is beyond frustrating to watch and most sadly, forgettable. It’s hard to fathom for a core group that has made as much history, played such a big role in restoring credibility and achieved the success they have for the program.

Viewed against expectations shaped by past performances and Pikiell’s declaration that this is his best team, Rutgers has failed to come close to meeting them. They have no one else to blame but themselves which makes it the most frustrating season in many years. This isn’t a program coming off years of futility or rebuilding this season. Self inflicted pain in failing to beat inferior opponents, both in the non-conference and in the Big ten, will likey be the cause of death for this team’s postseason aspirations.

While there has been some notable player development including the improvements of Mulcahy and the sophomore class including Omoruyi, Mawot Mag and Dean Reiber, that progress should not be confused as a moral victory. It’s encouraging for the future and shows player evaluations related to recruiting are a book still being written. Most troubling is that the core strengths of this program have suffered this season and are the biggest reason for their failures.

Defense and rebounding, the trademark of Pikiell’s early Rutgers’ teams, hasn’t been at the consistent high level that was expected or needed from this group. Offensively, the Scarlet Knights can share the basketball in a positive way they never have done previously, but they can also veer off the tracks by playing iso ball and settling for low percentage shots. This Rutgers team has the worst offensive efficiency rating since Pikiell’s first two teams, signifying a major step back.

This team is consistently inconsistent and rarely plays in the middle, rather performing on feast or famine levels. That falls on Pikiell and for whatever reason, he has failed guide this team to the potential he believes that they possess.

“(The Wildcats) were 1 point better,” Pikiell said. We played a great 25 minutes. Unfortunately, it’s a 40-minute league and (we) can’t get off to a start like that. I will tell you our guys just kept fighting, I was proud of them for that and we’ll bounce back.”

Seasons end the way you want them to in part by winning the type of game that Tuesday night brought against Northwestern. And they go the opposite way when you lose them.

At 12-9 overall and 6-5 in Big Ten play along with a NET ranking of 112 and a KenPom ranking of 103, this team is what their record and metrics say they are.

This team is running out of time to salvage what is ultimately trending as a lost season. The February gauntlet is here, whether Rutgers is ready or not. They’ve earned the opportunity to try and turn things around. The schedule presents plenty of quality opponents to garner signature, needle moving wins. But if Rutgers continues to be their own worst enemy by failing to limit mistakes early in games and are unable to find a way to deliver a perception changing winning streak, we already know the answer for how this season will end. And that answer will leave far more questions moving forward.